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Wolf Signs Moratorium on Public Lands’ Gas Leases

In a ceremony at Benjamin Rush State Park in Philadelphia Thursday morning, Governor Wolf signed an executive order that reinstates a moratorium on further gas leasing of public lands. The executive order trumps an executive order signed by former Gov. Tom Corbett last year that overturned a previous ban on further drilling of public lands.  Many environmental groups were quick to issue statements praising the decision.

Wolf had promised to sign the order during his campaign last year.  Corbett’s order authorized state officials to negotiate new leases for gas extraction wells drilled from adjacent, privately owned land or areas previously leased for drilling in state forests. Hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue from existing leases has been used to balance state budgets by both Governors Corbett and Rendell.

The new leases were expected to generate tens of millions of dollars to help balance the state budget, but were delayed pending a lawsuit filed by the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation that sought to stop them. Commonwealth Court sided with the Corbett administration in a decision earlier this month, asserting the state’s right to lease public lands for natural gas and oil drilling, and the diversion of rent and royalty payments from a land conservation fund to other programs.  The EDF said it will continue its appeal of the case in order to “get clarity on the meaning of the public trust.”

The environmental group wants the court to reconsider because the judges did not address its fundamental claim: that the state failed to perform its constitutional duty to evaluate the likely environmental impact before leasing tens of thousands of acres of state forests for natural gas extraction and transferring the money out of the conservation fund controlled by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Instead the court interpreted the foundation to be challenging the adequacy of the amount of money – up to $50 million – that the state allocated to DCNR from drilling royalties, a question the group said it did not raise.

Mr. Wolf’s acting DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn is a former deputy secretary at the department, and had testified as a witness for the EDF during a hearing in the case last year.  In her most recent role as president and CEO of PennFuture, she said, “Carefully managed industrialization is still industrialization, so the need for a moratorium on leasing of state forests and parks to drillers remains.”

The Wolf for PA political committee wasted no time with after the executive order, immediately capturing a photo of the signing and emailing requests to supporters across the state, with the tag line, “Fired up about Tom’s executive order? Stand with Governor Wolf to protect Pennsylvania’s environment and make a donation of $5 or more today.”